Water use in Agriculture

Good water management is essential to conserve water resources.

Targets & performance

Reduce water use in agriculture

  • We will develop comprehensive plans with our suppliers and partners to reduce the water used to grow our crops in water-scarce countries.
  • In 2013 we were able to analyse the first data coming from our supplier self-assessment software system. Our analysis first looked at tomato farming in California, then regions of China, Spain, Turkey and Australia.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

Our perspective

In 2012, using data from the Water Footprint Network, we conducted a ground-breaking water footprint assessment of the amount of irrigation water used to produce our key agricultural raw materials. We did this across all the water-scarce countries from where we source. This included a detailed assessment of our key agricultural materials (around two-thirds of our volume) and consideration of a further 30 materials. Please download the Unilever Water Footprint Study 2012 to read more.

Our assessment is much more precise than our previous analysis which we used to draw up our 2008 water footprint diagram. This is largely due to better water footprint estimates and more specific information on the areas in which our key crops are grown.

Our footprint is lower than we had previously estimated. We thought that the total water used to produce our agricultural ingredients was about 50% of our value chain footprint. We now know that water use in agriculture is about 15%, and that about 85% of the footprint relates to water used by our consumers.

Water footprint

The assessment identified tomatoes and sugar cane as priority crops from a water perspective. We have already worked for many years on promoting drip irrigation with our tomato suppliers in several regions.

Reducing water use in agriculture in water-scarce regions has been a focus for our sustainable agriculture programme for several years. In 2013 we were able to analyse the first data coming from our supplier self-assessment software system. Our analysis looked first looked at tomato farming in California, then regions of China, Spain, Turkey and Australia.

Our partner, the Water Footprint Network, predicts that in order to grow 1 tonne of tomatoes in California, the crop consumes 90 m3 of water in addition to rainfall. Since irrigation is never 100% efficient, the amount abstracted is expected to be higher.

The actual abstraction rate which our suppliers reported in California was 82 m3/tonne. This suggests that our suppliers are efficient, which is what we expect as we know many of our farmers are using drip irrigation. The results back up on-the-ground reports.

Over the next year we will be working on how we improve our data collection in the identified regions of China, Spain, Turkey and Australia, since the analysis suggested some issues with data quality.

First results from the system are encouraging, and we now face the challenge to expand the same effort across other water-scarce regions and raw materials. For example, we have been analysing data from sugar production which shows improvement programmes could have an important impact in countries such as India and Pakistan.

In the case of tracking the amount of irrigation water used to produce primary agricultural raw materials, we conduct desktop exercises to understand the issues and apply water management practices through sustainable sourcing.

Working with suppliers

Water management is one of 11 sustainability indicators in our Sustainable Agriculture Code, which we use when assessing suppliers. The Code sets out standards for water and irrigation management and catchment-level water conservation.

We also share our expertise on soil and irrigation management, water reuse and rainwater harvesting techniques with our suppliers, so that they know what they can do to make improvements. For example, we know that applying irrigation only when crops need it and in the right amounts, enhancing soil structure to increase its holding capacity and collecting water from rooftops and run-off can help farmers use water efficiently and can also help improve crop yields.

Conserving water through drip irrigation

Adopting more efficient techniques, such as using drip irrigation systems, can help to ensure that farmers use water more efficiently. Drip irrigation systems normally place small amounts of water directly into the soil or onto the soil surface at frequent intervals. This reduces the risk of run-off and thereby improves water application efficiency. Drip irrigation systems can be classified as traditional drip irrigation system, subsurface drip irrigation and low cost alternative systems.

Drip irrigation uses tubes to deliver small quantities of water and nutrients straight to the plants’ roots. This significantly reduces waste due to run-off and evaporation compared to systems such as overhead or furrow irrigation, cutting water use by as much as 50%.

By creating optimal growing conditions for the plant, drip irrigation can also boost yields by up to 25-35%; and because the soil is not completely soaked, it can also reduce the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases; in humid regions, the use of fungicide can be reduced by as much as 50%. Thus drip irrigation can enhance efficiency of water, nutrient and pesticide use relative to conventional techniques.

We provide technical support to help farmers convert to drip irrigation, which can be more complicated to use than traditional irrigation and work closely with equipment suppliers to facilitate this. Our focus is on farmers in water-stressed growing areas, where we are confident that drip irrigation can be made profitable.

The long-term benefits include significant water savings, increased yield and reduced chemical costs. It contributes to both economic and environmental sustainability. In Australia for example, tomatoes have been grown using up to 70% less water. In India, a set of drip irrigation pilots in gherkins produced an average water saving of 40%.

North America

Unilever Stockton, California has been working on the development of drip irrigation to grow tomatoes in the face of decreasing water availability for irrigation over the last decade.

Studies have shown that growers can reduce water use by up to 20% using drip irrigation versus the traditional practice of furrow irrigation. The estimated water savings in the conversion from furrow to drip irrigation is about six acre inches or 162,925 gallons per acre. Unilever Stockton’s growers use approximately 9,000 acres to produce 400,000 tons of tomatoes per season. In the US, we have found that the most striking aspect of conversion to drip irrigation for tomatoes is the significant yield increase of over 25%.

However, a few factors are preventing more drip irrigation being used. These include the initial cost of the drip system, lack of rotational crops that can use drip irrigation, and the technical use of the system. In order to promote the use of drip irrigation, in the last few years Unilever has partnered with several organisations such as the University of California Crop Extension Service, the National Resource Conservation Service, the California Tomato Research Institute, other processors and many growers.

Most of Unilever Stockton’s tomato growers were using furrow irrigation in 2008 and the plan is to convert 5-10% of our acreage every year to drip irrigation over the next ten years. This will involve several different growing areas and different types of water basins, varying from severe water shortage to plentiful supply of water.

All growers are being encouraged to watch their progress, review their water delivery system and educate themselves about the benefits of drip irrigation. Unilever will build on the growers’ success to promote the drip concept. We are also working closely with Spanish-speaking irrigators, providing funding and co-funding for training events. In addition, we are bringing together processors and growers to tackle the issue of water scarcity through the Processed Tomato Foundation, which we rejuvenated in November 2009.

Drip irrigation in India

Drip irrigation provides crucial benefits in India, which faces acute water shortages and low agricultural productivity. Any method that can boost yields whilst cutting water use is particularly welcome to local farmers, and helps us reduce our impact on water resources in regions of scarcity.

We are working on a number of projects in India that are focused around drip irrigation.

Marcatus, one of our strategic suppliers of gherkins, has given high priority to driving water conservation with their farmers. In the Tamil Nadu region, they have installed water meters to compare water consumption and yield using drip irrigation, with that of flood irrigation.

Via our supplier Varun Agro, we are working with 1,500 smallholder farmers covering 1,600 acres of land for growing tomatoes for tomato paste for Kissan Ketchup. 100% of the tomato fields are covered with drip irrigation system for irrigation under this project at Nashik. We are also working with Varun Agro and 150 smallholder farmers on their high density plantation of guava. All 150 acres of the orchards are covered with a drip irrigation system.

We are working with 1,000 smallholder farmers growing onions through our supplier Jain Irrigation. All 1,500 acres are covered by drip irrigation.

Promoting water efficiency in India with Solidaridad

NGO Solidaridad(Link opens in a new window) and the Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF) have jointly launched one of the largest water efficiency in agriculture programmes in India. It is expected to save cumulatively 0.4 to 1 trillion litres of water in three years through sustainable agriculture. The programme aims to save water at large scale and touch 779,000 workers and farmers in the sugar cane, cotton, soy and tea sectors.

Drip irrigation research in Africa

In Tanzania, we have been conducting research with academic partners and the Tea Research Institute of Tanzania to understand how tea yield and crop quality are influenced by the amount of water supplied to the crop and the irrigation methods used. The latest trials have concentrated on understanding the advantages and disadvantages of drip irrigation, a method that can achieve very high water use efficiency but at high capital cost.

All the water used for irrigation on our tea estates in Tanzania is harvested from within the farms during the rainy season. It is then stored on the farms in reservoirs and lakes for use during the dry season. Conserving the high proportion of rainforest within the Tanzanian estates (over 50% of the land area) is also vital to ensure that the catchment characteristics and local weather patterns are maintained.

In Kenya, Unilever is working with the Kenya Tea Development Agency and the Sustainable Trade Initiative to embed sustainability in tea cultivation. The initiative enables farmers to modify cultivation techniques to reduce energy use and increase yields. It also addresses topics such as baking, rabbit husbandry, poultry farming, beekeeping and other avenues aimed at supporting farmer resilience.

Turkey and China

In the Denizli region in Turkey, Unilever is working with oregano smallholders to use drip irrigation to extend the growing season. The project educates farmers on more efficient use of fertilisers and encourages the introduction of drip irrigation systems into their fields. Embedding these practices in the oregano farming community will double or even triple crop yields and therefore their incomes.

In China, Unilever’s Knorr smallholder farmer school promotes water-saving irrigation techniques and has already trained 3,300 farmers. It not only saves water, but labour costs too, thus improving profits for seedling farmers. The annual amount of saved water is 24 million cubic metres.

Hindustan Unilever Foundation in India

The Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF) furthers the community development initiatives of Hindustan Unilever. Acting in partnership with governments and NGOs, HUF aims to implement a holistic approach towards mitigating the economic, health and social problems caused by water scarcity. Through its Water for Public Good programme it supports India’s national priorities for socio-economic development.

In one of its projects in Maharashtra, HUF has partnered with MITTRA, an organisation promoted by BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune, to implement Rural Development programmes in Maharashtra state. It began working with HUF in September 2010, with an emphasis on water harvesting and agricultural use, along with soil and water conservation in high run-off watershed areas. This will improve production from the landscape and subsequently generate more employment opportunities for the local population.

Widening our scope

We have begun to expand our work at farm level to look at the wider impact of agricultural practices and the consequences of competing demands on water catchment areas. This is important because of the wider impact water quality and resources have on our business. Not only do agricultural practices have the potential to cause off-site impacts, they can also be threatened by other factors such as industry, which affect the supply and quality of water.

This work has led to some positive outcomes. For example, Unilever Tea Tanzania's (UTT) planting of 10,000 trees on its own estates; and donating 20,000 indigenous trees to communities in its local water catchment area to help conserve water resources. Tea plants require regular rainfall to produce their best leaves. Forests are an important factor in ensuring rainfall patterns remain stable and in protecting water catchment areas. Hence UTT's Biodiversity Action Plan places a high priority on maintaining trees.

Water vulnerability

We use EIGER, a web-based tool, to identify themes related to global climatic change. The tool takes the form of searchable maps and can provide us with information on water vulnerability. This includes information on which areas or regions suffer current water scarcity, or will suffer water scarcity in the future. It can also be used to assess the irrigation water demand for our crops and the different opportunity and risk profiles of, for example, two alternative sites.

Designed by our Sustainable Sourcing Development team, EIGER has subsequently been used by our manufacturing excellence team to assess water scarcity around our factory sites.

The EIGER database was compiled by a range of R&D organisations and institutes. The information does not date fast and will remain relevant for the next five to ten years. Read more in Sustainable Sourcing.

Preserving water quality

It is equally important to preserve the quality of the water returned back into the ecosystem. We advise our suppliers on the prudent use of pesticides and fertilisers to ensure that water quality is minimally affected. By taking these actions to preserve water quality we ensure that our water management strategy does not deprive local communities of clean water supplies for the sake of our business activities.

Working with partners

Unilever is a member of the SAI Platform’s Working Group on Water and Agriculture. The Group, which focuses on water practices at farm level, is working on a water footprint for the improvement of water management. SAI Platform members, including Unilever, started a project in north-west India in mid-2010 to develop a water impact calculator to help farmers decide when to irrigate. The results of this project were presented at the World Water Forum in 2012.